What stops people from becoming themselves?

What stops people from becoming themselves? This is a strange question since you can argue that we are already ourselves. It is a valid point, but if you consider a plant growing in an ideal environment, with all the nutrients and support it needs it would grow differently than one germinating under a bridge in the city.

I think the biggest factor that affects us is our environment. We are social creatures and peer pressure, culture and habit play a much larger role than we would like to admit. To this end I believe that the biggest factor that prevents us from in not becoming ourselves is the mould we are forced to grow into by our parent’s and greater society’s beliefs. All the beliefs we would never choose for ourselves but internalise anyway. Take for example political affiliation. If you had absolutely no political affiliation up until the age you were able to vote would you still choose the same party you associate with now, or along similar lines for religion? If you had no exposure to religion and had the opportunity at the age of 18 to pick one would you still end up choosing the same beliefs?

Much of who we are is shaped by who we think we are. If we just took the time every once in a while to look at our beliefs in an objective light, view them as an ignorant outsider, we might get a glimpse of how to better become ourselves.

[Inspired by this passage from HPMOR]

She let him go on like that until she’d finished pouring herself a glass of grapefruit juice, and then she said, “I’ve got a question for you, Mr. Potter. How do you think people fail to become themselves?”

What??” said Harry.

She looked at him. “Pretend there isn’t all this stuff going on,” she said, “and just say whatever you’d have said yesterday.”

“Um…” Harry said, looking very confused and worried. “I think we already are ourselves… it’s not like I’m an imperfect copy of someone else. But I guess if I try to run with the sense of the question, then I’d say that people don’t become themselves because we absorb all this crazy stuff from the environment and then regurgitate it. I mean, how many people playing Quidditch would be playing a game like that if they’d invented the game themselves? Or back in Muggle Britain, how many people who think of themselves as Labour or Conservative or Liberal Democrat would invent that exact bundle of political beliefs if they had to come up with everything themselves?”

An adventure in repair and 3D printing

First off I need to apologise for the lack of photos. I should really have documented this process better.

The new apartment I moved into had a broken extractor fan above the hob in the kitchen. The problem was a little plastic part that pushes past switches turning lights and fans on and off.

I thought that this would be a good opportunity to try 3D printing. I extracted the offending part and took some measurements with a digital caliper. I then used these measurements to model the part in Autodesk Inventor. The model was exported and sent to 3D printing service in Melbourne but due to a scaling mix-up the part was printed at the wrong scale. So after the hilarious unboxing of the huge part I went back and made sure I exported the part at the right scale.

This was printed with a different service using a different printer which leaves a much harder support material that supposedly dissolves in water (but doesn’t actually).

After carefully trying to scrape all this material off I tried to screw in the replacement screw only to have the part split! A bit of super glue and some hope took care of this problem.

Lessons learned:

  • 3D printing is great for making small plastic parts that usually break and incapacitate large machines.
  • 3D prints are strong but not invincible.
  • Make sure you and the printer are using the desired scale.
  • Drill out the support material and screw holes. That material has nowhere to go and will split your part if not removed.

 

What I learned after 6 months of voluntary unemployment

In less than a week it will be 6 months since I decided to quit my job. I thought I would share my experiences and insights here.

Before I left I was convinced that the only thing standing between me and a life filled with productive hours of passion-projects was my job. I was so sure that the exhaustion I felt mentally was caused by the aggregate of minor daily frustrations. This had been my internal mythology ever since I stepped out of the sheltered halls of university and into the glaring fluorescent light of the office cubicle.

I have learned about a psychological condition called provisional living – this is in essence the habit of saying I will do X as soon as Y happens. So for example: I will start jogging in the mornings as soon as the divorce is finalised. Or in my case: I will become super productive doing all the things I have been dreaming about for almost a decade once this job is out of the way.

Let me start by outlining things that a job provided that I did not give it credit for. The first surprising thing is that it forces you to be productive even at some minuscule level. When you go in to work for the day you can be assured that most of the time you will be forced to achieve at least one or more productive tasks. If you don’t then it could be argued that hiding your un-productiveness from management becomes a productive task in its own right. The social aspect also plays an important role. For 5 days out of the week you’re forced to confront and interact with people who you might not interact with otherwise. People with other viewpoints and stories and ways of looking at life.

The first reality I had to face a few weeks in was that I was not some amazing self-firing, industrious fiend. I was so convinced that I was not a procrastinator since I never leave anything to the last minute but this dynamic does not seem to function if I am in control of setting the deadlines. When waking up on any day with nothing in particular to do, it becomes too easy to just defer to tomorrow, or next week even. The aspect I failed to realise was that working on passion projects is still work. There is no self-igniting thing that makes it different from a job except that you get to decide the project and that a bigger part of it will hopefully be enjoyable.

Parkinson’s law states that a task will grow to fill the time allotted to it. This is true along with the caveat that a task will never get done if the deadline is not fixed. So the first lesson was that I was not the person who I thought work was holding me back from.

The second thing I learned is that I, like all other humans, am a creature of habit. The thought that I would suddenly change my habits drastically when my job was removed seems absurd now. What ended up happening is the habits I enjoyed, browsing the internet and reading, just had more time allocated to them.

In conclusion, your job might suck, but be careful about assuming that leaving your job will be panacea. Don’t use your job as an excuse to stop yourself from doing what you really want to do.

You have arrived at your destination

Nissan said: “Life’s a journey. Enjoy the ride.” This leaves precious little proverb to describe what to do when you reach a destination in your life. Earlier this week I started my mini-retirement. This has been my singular goal since I made the unfortunate mistake of entering the workforce as an employee. A few months after I started I had locked in my course: to get out. Since that decision every choice I have made has been towards this goal, this destination. 

Now that I am here, with no more alarms and appointments, the days seem very “empty”. The past few years have been easy in that sense. After the initial resolve to make the decision it was easy to just continue on auto-pilot. Mindless-ness. Now I am at another junction in my life that requires conscious thought and mindfulness. Work, or employment makes it so easy to just check your brain at the door and do what is required of you. Planning, taking charge, these are rarely used skills that take energy and time. 

Now I am preparing for the next journey, this one will have a less clear destination. How to live long and prosper – and start dreaming again.

Regarding the 2011 suicides at the iPhone manufacturing plant

To be soaked in materialism, to directly and indirectly champion it, has also brought guilt. I don’t know if I have a right to the vast quantities of materials and energy I consume in my daily life. Even if I thought I did, I know the planet cannot bear my lifestyle multiplied by 7 billion individuals. I believe this understanding is shared, if only subconsciously, by almost everyone in the Western world.

Every last trifle we touch and consume, right down to the paper on which this magazine is printed or the screen on which it’s displayed, is not only ephemeral but in a real sense irreplaceable. Every consumer good has a cost not borne out by its price but instead falsely bolstered by a vanishing resource economy. We squander millions of years’ worth of stored energy, stored life, from our planet to make not only things that are critical to our survival and comfort but also things that simply satisfy our innate primate desire to possess. It’s this guilt that we attempt to assuage with the hope that our consumerist culture is making life better—for ourselves, of course, but also in some lesser way for those who cannot afford to buy everything we purchase, consume, or own.

When that small appeasement is challenged even slightly, when that thin, taut cord that connects our consumption to the nameless millions who make our lifestyle possible snaps even for a moment, the gulf we find ourselves peering into—a yawning, endless future of emptiness on a squandered planet—becomes too much to bear.

When 17 people take their lives, I ask myself, did I in my desire hurt them? Even just a little?

And of course the answer, inevitable and immeasurable as the fluttering silence of our sun, is yes.

Just a little.

Joel Johnson

Can we change?

“I know what you are saying. I try not to think about it. But it’s not that unusual. Over the course of history, billions of people have lived this way. Think back to when you were living in suburbia. Your parents had a 3,000 square foot house and the pool at the turn of the century. You were living it up. Unfortunately, at that moment in history, there were billions of people around the world living in poverty — they were living off a dollar or two per day. Meanwhile, your family had 300 dollars a day. Did you do anything about it? Billions and Billions of people living in third-world countries, squatting together in the dirt, crapping in ditches. They would walk down by the river just like we are doing right now and say to each other, ‘There must be a way out.’ They could see that they were lost — totally wasted human potential trapped in a terrible situation. Their kids and their kids’ kids forever would live like this because there was absolutely no way out. Did anyone stop to help them? Did you stop to help them? No. You were too busy splashing in the pool. Those billions of people lived and died in incredible poverty and no one cared.”

From Manna

The festival of lights

The boy was slowly walking up the dirt road, following a lonely power line. The sun hasn’t even really risen yet. He thought about the little block of chocolate his mother had bribed him with to get up so early. Not the carob stuff Miss Holland made but the real stuff that was made with rare cocoa that she got from somewhere. He didn’t really want to go but his mom said that he would find it really interesting and that Ms. Lee would give him good marks. As he walked over a low ridge he was able to see the chain link fence and a figure leaning against the post of the open gate. There was no turning back now.

“Are you Michael Robertson?” asked the old man in a voice that sounded like it wasn’t being used that much anymore. Michael tried to say yes but his voice faltered. “Yes, that’s me,” he got out the second time. “Come follow me, there is something I want to show you,” the old man said. He led Michael through the sea of mirrors to the central spire that dominated the area around it. They slowly made their way up the steel staircase that encircled the tower. Michael wondered how high he was off the ground. He was never afraid of heights, but this was different to climbing a tree. He stayed as close to the side of the structure as possible.
After a few minutes they reached the top. Michael was a bit out of breath and tried not to show it. The old man was fit for somebody with so much grey hair.
At the top of the stairs there was a wraparound deck that allowed you to see all the way back to town.
Michael walked around the tower taking in the view.

Marco, “the Sparky”, was known in town as a recluse but people were keenly aware that he kept the power running somehow while most other places had given up on electricity. The old man was leaning against the railing looking at the sea of mirrors.

“It looks like a heart from up in the sky, if you flew in a plane you would see that. I turned the mirrors down so you could see the view. If I didn’t we would be blind by now.”
Michael’s mom had said he might need to guide the conversation and that old people tended to ramble when they reminisced.
“Sir, for my report I need to write about a job from the past, a job that no longer exists.”
“Yes, yes, I know that”, said the old man. “I was just telling you that not everybody gets to stand here during the day. It’s a privilege. Come let me show you what everything is.”
“So this tower is where all the mirrors, or heliostats, aim the sunlight. The sunlight turns water into steam that we use to spin a turbine. The turbine then spins a generator and that then generates electricity.”
Michael nodded not sure if he could ask questions.
The old man continued: “Now our system uses water which means that when the sun goes down the power stops after a while but other places also used to melt salt and store it to do the same thing. That gave you a bit more storage after sundown.”
“How hot does it have to get to melt salt?”, Michael asked after his curiosity got the better of him.
“I don’t know off the top of my head but it is around 800°C. This tower here can reach 650 on a clear day. Let’s get down so that I can get the turbine going,” said the man as he led the way down the stairs.

In the control room Michael was staring out of a cracked window in the direction of the tower. He heard a few button presses behind him and then a slight hum. In front of him hundreds of blocks of light started moving their way towards a central point on the tall tower. Suddenly the tower was glowing as brightly as the sun and he had to look away. He turned to the old man who smiled. “It’s bloody bright. When they built this place the glass use to darken by itself if it got too bright but like most things it broke and nobody could fix it.”
He walked to a little table with an old electric kettle on it. “Your name is Michael isn’t it? Your teacher’s letter spoke very highly of you. Sit, let me make us some tea then you can ask your questions.”

Michael took out his pencil and paper and prepared to take notes. He sharpened his pencil. “Sir, I was hoping you could start by telling me about this place and how it was built?”
The old man looked at him. “Call me Marco, kids are scared enough of me without them having to use titles for me.”
He sat down and handed Michael his tea in a chipped mug with a faded logo on it.
“Well, about 40 years ago the debt collectors came to the door of our nation. Fossil fuel depletion and the climate crises were here to call in the debts made to Mother Nature. Here in Victoria we were used to heat waves. There was usually one, maybe two, a year but in 2021 we crowned the king. It went above 47°C for ten days and above 50°C for two. We lost many old people during those two weeks. By that time it had also become more common for the power to black out during the summer. They always made a reasonable excuse like a fire in a coal yard somewhere unseen or the heat causing some issue with the transmission lines but during that heat wave the power outage was a death sentence to anybody who relied on air conditioning. After the twelve day heat wave and a four day power outage the government’s ability to deny that we were in trouble had evaporated like most of the water in the state. I was just glad we had the desalination plant. I heard horror stories of other poorer countries where people killed each other over access to water.”
“Politically things changed faster than I thought possible. The prime minister was ousted or stepped down, I can’t remember exactly. People were suddenly clamouring for somebody with some environmental sense to save them. I knew at this point that it was too little and too late. Which just goes to show you how wrong you can be when you underestimate people who are committed and convinced of an ideal. I knew this new regime wasn’t just symbolic when they closed the Hazelwood power station over night. Hazelwood was one the biggest and most polluting old coal power stations in the first world at that time. And in Victoria the only coal was brown coal, the dirtiest coal. But the government closed the station and people were willing to pay the price for the closure in dollars and reduced usage. Granted the government’s actions were late but they were not little. The federal government marshalled the whole country to take part in a program to switch over to renewable energy as soon as possible. They gave tax incentives to people who invested their pension funds in the program and this unlocked the capital to get many things done quickly. Australia didn’t really have the skills or industry to construct wind turbines on a large scale but we had plenty of sunlight and a defunct car manufacturing industry that was salvaged to construct CSP’s, concentrated solar thermal power plants. This plant along with most of the others in the country were built during the mad scramble at the end of the renewable energy build program. By then imports were becoming harder to come by and even more costly and the government had also started bending certain laws and patent rules. This installation is based on a Spanish design that we adapted to be more robust and easier to manufacture and maintain. The tradeoff was made for power quality and reliability. Even though it was easier to maintain all the mechanisms and electronics they still had to be maintained frequently. The occasional hiccups caused by our modified generator design caused a gradual killing off of weaker electrical items as well as the occasional power outage but people were more than happy to put up with the problems as long as it meant that the energy was “clean” and that the other countries couldn’t fine us anymore for our contribution to climate change.”
Michael had found that he had stopped making notes and was just listening. He had heard some of these stories before, but his mother was really young when all of these things took place and she didn’t really know all the details. “So this,” he scanned his notes quickly, “generator makes electrical things go hubbo?”
Marco laughed. “You know where that term comes from?”. Michael shook his head.
“A few years after the 2021 heat wave the petrol price hit $4 liter and I knew we were in trouble. I had followed peak oil and believed in it on an intellectual level but it really sank in when I started having to make choices I had never made before. Choices like a hot shower or a hot meal, I couldn’t afford the gas for both anymore. I wasn’t the only one having a hard time. $4 per liter petrol must have been a mental barrier for most people and after that barrier was broken people lost it. That winter protests broke out all over Australia. People were upset over prices, everything was expensive, food, fuel, gas and electricity. The thing that made people livid was the fact that we as a country were selling our natural gas to other countries while Australians had to endure cold water and cooking with wood because gas on the international market was climbing higher and higher and people in colder places were more willing and desperate to pay to get it. But I knew peak oil was being accepted by the mainstream when the term ‘hubbo’ became common place. Australians like to make language their own and this included the mention of Marion King Hubbert and his peak oil theory. After a few mentions in the media the term ‘hubbo’ came to describe anything that was declining, going down hill, breaking, broken or diminishing.”
“To answer your original question, no, this place doesn’t make every electrical thing go hubbo, just the more sensitive things. Things that were designed for a different time when electricity was limitless and faultless.”

Michael smiled at this word origin story. “So what is your job exactly?”, he asked. He looked out the window at some of the mirrors that were pointing straight up. Like dead fish in a pond. “It seems a few of your mirrors have gone hubbo.”
The old man shifted his chair so that his legs were in the path of the sun that was starting to creep through the window.
“You’re a clever kid. Yeah, about a third of our heliostats are beyond repair. Heliostat is the proper name for these mirrors that track the sun through the sky. My job, when I started, was just to oversee the operation and running of the facility. I had about six other people helping me at the beginning but as the going got tougher they all moved away or looked for easier work. I used to just make sure that things were working and that spare parts were ordered and installed. At the beginning spare parts were easy to come by as long as you got your order in early and you were willing to wait. Sadly luck dealt us a double blow with the parts. We had a big fire in one of the main gear stamping factories and we never really had the capacity for large scale electronics manufacturing. They were able to rebuild the factory somewhat but the Chinese wanted sole access to our gas and the government could not afford that so it was almost impossible to get the circuits we needed from them. I was able to make due with the parts I had on hand for a while but at some point I had to start thinning the herd – so to speak. You see the heliostats need to follow the sun and their tracking mechanism is usually the first to go. These units only had stamped metal and rough castings for gearboxes and did not last forever. The electronics that made it work was also very finicky and were meant to be replaced after a decade. Mechanically I was able to keep things going for longer because your uncle Tony has that machine shop in his shed and he has helped me fix some of the smaller parts for a long time but sadly I don’t have the means to fix the main gear once it runs into trouble.
When I was much younger I learned a skill called ‘circuit grafting’ from a guy I worked with. Basically you graft a working piece of a circuit board into a broken section of another circuit board. This technique has allowed me to keep much of the trackers’ electronics working for much longer than in other places. So in a way every part that goes hubbo gives life to something else. These days my list of donors grows smaller as the list of needy recipients grows.
So I guess these days I am more of a caretaker looking after a fleet of ageing machines from a bygone era.”

Michael was saddened to learn that heliostats were busy dying out like some of the animals he learned about in school. “I though a sparky could fix anything.”
Marco looked up. “A sparky used to describe a person who worked as an electrician but as people had to get used to living with less it came to describe anybody who could decipher and work with the magic of electricity. As an electrical engineer I was more skilled in this magic than most but I can only work within a system that supplies me with materials and knowledge and tools. Sadly, we sparky’s can’t fix everything. ”

Michael sat in silence for a while. Trying to imagine what things must have been like when they were getting better not just going hubbo all the time. He glanced over his notes and decided that he had enough material to write his report. He thanked Marco, said goodbye and made his way home. Marco watched the boy walk down the road from the door of the operations centre. He suddenly felt very old. Maybe it is time he took on an apprentice he thought?

—-

Michael was standing on the tower just after dusk. He watched the few remaining heliostats rotate into position, ready to catch the dawn in the morning. He made sure that valves leading to and from the concentrator had locked correctly and then climbed down again. Marco had died about three years ago from a bad flu that swept the town that winter. Old people never seemed to bounce back from illnesses anymore. Michael had spoken at his funeral and made sure the town understood how much the man had done for them and how he worked tirelessly to allow them to keep enjoying electricity, a luxury from another age. Thankfully he had learned most of what he needed to know to run the facility from the old sparky before he passed away. He had also spoken to the mayor about voluntarily taking some of the heliostats offline as spares to make them last longer. This meant that even less electricity would be available to the townspeople. He had discussed it with the mayor and one of the things they would no longer be able to do was charge the circuits to run the streetlights for that precious hour or so after dusk. He knew that Marco would never have agreed to this. Seeing the glow of the town for a few hours after dusk always made him smile a tiny bit. Unfortunately the electricity and the heliostats creating it could be better used for other more important things. And Michael knew on a more basic level what the extinctions of the heliostats meant. He had discussed the preservation of the heliostats with the mayor and had her agreement. The town was throwing a big party in honour of the last performance of the town streetlights.

Michael set the timer on the load shedding module in the control room and then left to attend the festival.

He was lying on his back looking at the insects swarming around the lights of the park when the power cut out. A part of him felt saddened, like something he couldn’t quite put his finger on had gone, something more than just the streetlights. A sudden insight gripped him. How similar we are to moths. We couldn’t really help ourselves when the glow of perceived progress was lit by fossil fuels and we couldn’t help but migrate to be in it’s light. Around him people were slowly lighting candles and the flickering of fires became more apparent as his eyes adjusted. We had come this far, surely we could adapt again. He fell asleep thinking about chocolate.

Stuck in traffic

I grew up with certain understandings about the world. Work hard and you will reach the top, find your passion, follow your dreams, you can be whatever you want, and good triumphs over evil.

As I was sitting stuck in traffic the other day I was ruminating on all these beliefs and wondering if they were ever true since they certainly aren’t true now. I grew up as a privileged white male which is synonymous with playing the game of life on easy. And yet as I am now approaching 30 I can say that real life cannot be quantified with banal platitudes. Working hard does not always mean you reach the top, you need connections and luck. You can’t be whatever you want if you want to earn a living. There are only so many places that need oceanographers, Medieval Latin experts and art historians. Most of the time only evil triumph over evil.

So I was sitting on a highway parking lot. Inching my way forward wishing the earth would just swallow me. There is this absolute horrible trapped feeling that I get in traffic that I have only experienced on a transcontinental flight before. A feeling where you know you can’t get out and whatever happens you need to follow this thing through to its destination. I see being part of the working class in the same way now. I cannot opt to not work. I cannot find that ephemeral dream job because I don’t even get a choice anymore. I am lucky to have a job at all. And people keep asking me what am I going to do next? It’s called work for a reason. If I had the choice I would not work.

I imagine that many seasons ago it was a great achievement to graduate as an engineer. That your degree in itself was a meal ticket. These days you need to somehow prove that you are better than the hundreds of other candidates with their community service and perfectly typeset resumes and pristine cover letters only to receive a badly written boiler plate rejection letter if an employer even responds at all. I am stuck in no man’s land of having to little experience to apply as a senior anything and having too many years behind me to apply for entry level positions.

And if, not when, you are lucky enough to find a job remotely related to the degree you studied you find that that degree did not really prepare you for anything that you really need to do. There is just unending paper work and office politics and endless repetition of some profitable action. None of the interesting things you studied ever feature in real life making a university degree seem like some crazy expensive 4 year playgroup.

There has been a lot of moaning in the media recently about the millennial generation and Gen-Y being whiners and feeling entitled etc. Maybe that is true. Maybe I should have stopped and thought when I was 13 that what the world would be more willing to hire would be bankers and economists in a few years since we don’t really create wealth by creating value anymore we just conjure it into being by being clever with the economy. Or perhaps when I was 16 I should have done my best to job shadow at an engineering firm for longer than a week to see what an engineer in the real world does. All I know is that when I was 19 and optimistic I charted a course for my life by deciding to study engineering, filled with the belief that I had certain career prospects, that I would be able to get somewhere on merit and that if I followed my passion it would lead to a rewarding career.

This belief was reiterated again when I was able to get a job after university through a lecturer. I was spared the hassle that I am sure many of my peers faced with CVs and cover letters and how to dress correctly for an interview. A few months into my new job I began to realise that what I wanted and what life was willing to pay a salary for where two different things.

It’s a lottery. You have similar odds of landing that dream job. We can’t all come first. Automation means fewer people are doing more with less. And there is no connection between how many people graduate and how many jobs are available.

So go ahead. Call me an entitled, spoiled, white kid who doesn’t know how good he has it. I am very grateful and keenly aware that I am miles better off than most of the world in all aspects of life that keep you alive. Water, food, clothing, housing. And yet I find that satisfaction, achievement, recognition and passion are missing from a 40 hour chunk of my life every week.

So in closing I guess it’s all in the mind. I need to accept that I am being held hostage by what my 18 year old self thought was a good career move and that work is work and only a select few find a passion that pays. That no matter how good you are or even who you are, if there is an economic pile up on the highway of life you will be left stuck in traffic.